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Are We Ready to Provide Great Customer Service in the Federal Government?

Yesterday, April 27, 2011, President Obama issued an Executive Order: Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service. In a nutshell, it directs agencies to develop and monitor customer service plans and measures and to solicit customer feedback to improve service. It calls for agencies to use technology to streamline customer service and to emulate practices that have worked well in the private sector.

This isn’t the first Presidential customer service initiative – President Clinton issued an Executive Order in 1993, requiring agencies to establish customer service standards – but it’s a huge step at a time when public expectations of government service have never been higher. As a long-time advocate for great customer service in government, I’m turning cartwheels!

But, wait…can it work?

My good friend, Bernie Lubran – fellow government customer service passionista and Regional Manager for ForeSee Results (home of the American Customer Satisfaction Index) – sent me a link to a great article last week, “The Rise of the Chief Customer Officer,” by Paul Hagen, published in the Harvard Business Review. It talks about a new kind of executive at many top private sector companies: the Chief Customer Officer (CCO). If you care about customer service in government, read it.

What really struck me was a quote from Roei Ganzarski, the CCO at the Training & Flight Services Division of the Boeing Company, “… in order to continue growing successfully, we needed to be more focused on our customers than ever before. Our organizational culture wasn’t optimal to say the least. Our operations departments were focused on our products and services, our finance teams on collecting payments, and our sales and business development teams on meeting short-term revenue goals. But no one was looking at things from the customers’ holistic perspective. We knew we needed to change our culture to better serve the one reason we all exist — our customers.”

Does that sound familiar? How many government agencies are so wrapped up in carrying out mission that they fail to look at things from their customer’s point of view? How many agencies (and sub-agencies and divisions and officies…you know – all those silos) are so busy meeting those management goals that they forget their services may be just part of what their customers need to solve their problems and achieve their goals. Is achieving mission really the same as providing great customer service?

So back to President Obama’s initiative. Oh, I do so want it to work. I do. I do.

I remember when President Clinton’s Executive Order was issued. We knew it was the right thing to do. But – honestly – it asked so little of us. And we were so busy doing other good things. So while agencies met the letter of the requirements, there was no commensurate change in culture. And we didn’t have a leader dedicated to the effort – a Chief Customer Officer – to see it through. Leadership is oh-so-essential if you really want to create change.

So what do we need to achieve a happy ending this time? Real, comprehensive change to create great customer service from the federal government?

Well, we need to address the two problems. And do one more right thing.

  1. We need a real firm mandate to look at government services from our customers’ point of view. My one disappointment with the Executive Order is that it lets each agency do its own thing. I wish it said, “we need to look at things from our customers’ point of view and build our services in ways that make sense to them, even if – especially if – that means working across agencies to package a service.” Achieving your mission isn’t enough if the customer can complete only half the task. We need executives, managers, and employees across government to adopt “customer think.”
  2. We need a strong leader. We need someone to serve as our CCO – to inspire, excite, advocate for, oversee, coordinate, poke, prod, goad, and do whatever it takes to create great customer service across government. The Executive Order says the Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Division, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy will provide support and best practices. That’s great! And necessary. But we need one leader who really understands our customers (both individual citizens and other entities), who has the ear of the President, who will be at the table with all the other executives making decisions about how resources are handed out and what the priorities are, who can bring private sector customer service experts together with public managers to identify and adopt great customer service practices, who has the time and talent to cause the culture change we need, and – most of all – who has the passion to do this hard job because it’s the right thing to do.
  3. If we really care about open government and customer service, why not involve customers in this initiative? Establish a Customer Service Panel of typical customers – maybe at each agency, but certainly across government – to try out ideas, offer suggestions, and be partners in this whole thing.

Ok – and because I’ve been harping about it forever – suggestion 4 is to have a Customer Service Summit.

Are we ready to provide great customer service in government? Oh, I hope so. I believe so. I want it to be so. If not now, when?

Related Posts
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Creating a Culture of Customer Service – “And Would You Like Catsup for Your Fries?”
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Pretty impressive to see the initiative. Does seem time for a Summit.

What happened with the previous EO? What worked? What didnt’? Did it get off to a big bang and then people kind of forgot. I’m always curious about these past initiatives and learning from the past.

Candi Harrison

Honestly, I don’t remember much hoopla about it. I do remember that we published the customer service standards, at HUD, as we were supposed to. I think agencies hit the letter of the law. But there was so much else going on – so many other initiatives, the web, etc. – it got lost in the shuffle. Right intention. Just didn’t have the horses to go with it. That’s my memory. So I think the key to making different this time is to put the horses behind it. Gotta change the culture – or at least start – or this will wane away. And that would be too bad.

Ricky J. Harris

Candi, I LOVE the idea of a CCO and a Customer Service Summit. But I fear something pushed completely from the top has the risk of becoming a “science” and just another bland management goal to be checked off. Local and state governments should study and try different innovations in customer service. There could be even some type of forum to bounce ideas and show everyone what’s working.

Preston G. Baker

As our NYC agency embarks the implementation of LSS the EO seems most timely. Our team will be looking toward improving the delivery of customer service. I have made note of some good ideas and potential pitfalls by info provided here on Govloop. For example, I plan to bring up Candi’s idea of the Customer Service Panel for discussed at our next team meeting. I’m still a “rookie” on Govloop but this on-line forum has already been quite beneficial.

Wendi Pomerance Brick

Here’s a suggestion #5: Create a template Customer Experience Plan document for people to follow. Every agency does not have the experience or the staff to evaluate the intricacies of every customer interaction. What should agencies be looking for? Once they strategically identify what they are looking for, how do they tactically implement to make the changes “stick”? This document would be a framework and could provide guidance on what each agency should look for, then they can decide how to customize the template to work in their own environment.

For example, as Candi aptly points out, including the customer is critical in assessing what needs to be improved. One way to capture the customers’ point of view and gather feedback is mystery shopping. But mystery shopping isn’t appropriate in every situation. So if the template includes “gather customer feedback from various sources” and lists examples, it would make it much easier tactically for each agency to successfully implement the directives of the EO.

When you have the answers to your questions, how do you roll it all up into the bigger picture of creating a culture of service in the organization? There are proven methods that work. It would be most impactful if these issues were worked out in advance so that the effort to make these changes will result in long term success.